Interview with Farid Esack
"Pluralist societies are about give and take"

Farid Esack is a Koran scholar and Islamic liberation theologian from South Africa. He is one of the most renowned Islamic thinkers of our time. Claudia Mende spoke to him at the recent international "Horizons of Islamic Theology" conference in Frankfurt

Prof Esack, you have voiced strong criticism of the new Departments for Islamic Theology at German universities. Why?

Farid Esack: My point is that I don't think that the fundamental questions of the ideological forces that are driving the interest in the development of Islamic Theology and its contents are being asked. German Muslims still come across as being indebted and very grateful to be in Germany.

In some ways it is like they have been outside in the rain of repressive Muslim countries like Iran, for example, or in the cold of a bad economic climate in Turkey 40 years ago and then a car stopped along the way, and they got in. But now you are in the car and you are grateful for the fact that the car stopped; you are a passenger, and all the questions that you are asking of yourself and of your Islam are those of a passenger in a German car heading in a German direction.

So there is this guest status and the questions you are asking are: how can I be a better passenger? This is the assimilationist project. The driver wants to make you comfortable in the car, but always as a passenger. There are fundamental questions that German Muslims have to ask themselves: for how long do we want to be passengers in this car? When are we going to share the driving responsibilities? When are we going to become co-owners of the car? These are more fundamental questions I think we should be raising.

Is your perspective a different one because you are a Muslim from South Africa?

Esack: I do think that my South-Africanness plays a large role in all of this. Muslims have been in South Africa for more than 300 years. South Africa is our home, we have participated in the destruction of apartheid and in the creation of a non-racial and a non-sexist society. We are not a minority, we are South Africans who are Muslims.

Of course the role of German Muslims is a relatively new one. But I don't see why German Muslims have to go through 360 years of minorityness before they can demand a share in the shaping of German society.

In our struggle against apartheid, it became easy for anti-globalisation or anti-imperialist activists to embrace us as Muslims. The problem with minorities is that they are often obsessed with themselves and their own little needs, like how do I get my uncle into Germany? How do we protect our little narrow things about Muslim slaughtering or the right to circumcise our children? So the issues are often very limited. This is why it is very difficult for Muslims to find lasting allies across a broad progressive spectrum. In South Africa, Islam was embraced by activists throughout the country because the nature of Islamic discourse was a much more progressive one.

How is the perception of your theology in the Muslim world?

Esack: Many Muslims appreciate me for one reason and are confused by me for another reason. They appreciate me for the clarity with which I articulate an anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist discourse; you can see their eyes just lighting up when I articulate this.

But they become very uncomfortable when I offer the same critique to Muslim societies. When, for example, I point out that in very many Muslim societies, every single complaint and lament that we have about our position to the empire and the way it is treating us, is reflected in how Muslim men treat Muslim women.

If I stay in the same analogy of the car and the passenger, Muslim women are destined to be eternal passengers in the Muslim car. There is no question of them becoming drivers – and I am saying this in an allegorical sense. We will treat our minorities kindly, but we will not allow them to share in the power discourse in the country and be as powerful as we are.

Muslims enjoy my critique when I talk about the one dimension where they are the victims. It's different when I go into what we are doing to religious minorities in our countries, what we are doing to Christians in Pakistan or in Egypt. Or what we are doing to sexual minorities: then they become very difficult. So the response is an ambivalent one.

Does Islam have a problem with pluralism?

Esack: We don't see our faith as an ongoing, evolving thing. We search for paradigms. We have the Meccan paradigm and the Medin paradigm and they are very simplistic: before Hijra and after Hijra. The Meccan paradigm is basically "we were the victims"; the Medin paradigm is "we had overcome and we were now the rulers". Both of them are inadequate for a genuinely convivial and pluralist society. Pluralist societies are about give and take. In the same way I critiqued the German discourse that insists on Germans being the drivers, I critique a Muslim discourse that insists that Muslims are the drivers.

Activists in Alexandria demonstrating against the referendum on the Egyptian constitution in December 2012 (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
The Arab Spring: from uprising to upheaval and restoration: "I don't have much confidence in what is happening inside the Arab world. [...] There isn't anything serious on the horizon in terms of democracy and the development of a pluralist society," says Prof Farid Esack

But do these paradigms make any sense at all nowadays?

Esack: If you resort to our paradigms as models for the future, I do think that we have problems. We have to move beyond the whole idea that the past was the paradigm and that it must be re-enacted. The conditions were completely different. Many of the shorter Meccan suras are a lament against economic exploitation. This is one of the fundamental problems with Muslims: our critique of the empire is not a principled critique, it is a lamentation about the fact that we are not in control of the world.

There are some new approaches for Islam in a pluralist society, but they basically come from the West. Do you see any chance of them spilling over into the Arab world?

Esack: The painful thing is that easy answers to your question were completely debunked by the Arab Spring. Just as we thought that Muslims could once again move into a kind of democratic discourse, it all blew up in our face. I don't think that any group of people are inherently disposed to greatness or to chaos. Who would have imagined that Germany could have done what it did?

But at the moment I don't have much confidence in what is happening inside the Arab world. The dynamics between the US and the Arab world are too incestuous; the interest that the West has in the retention of some of those monarchies combined with internal negative forces like feudal systems, the entrenchment of the military in a country like Egypt: all of this means that there isn't anything serious on the horizon in terms of democracy and the development of a pluralist society.

The terrorism perpetrated by Islamic State raises a lot of questions. Can you find a justification for everything in the Koran?

Esack: This is very painful for me to say, but the honest answer is: yes. As a Muslim I would love to say that you cannot find justification for this kind of barbarism, but intellectually it wouldn't be an honest answer. There are texts that can be read in a manner that justifies their barbarism, and the reality is that those texts are in the Koran.

I think that for us, as Muslims, as in all traditions with a textual basis, there are continuous contestations amongst us about how to ensure that some understandings of the text get appropriated for larger inclusive, pluralist objectives and for more just objectives. But the truth is that these people drink from the same well as you or I. They take the water from the well and poison it in order to destroy others, but the water itself comes from the same well – as difficult as that is for me as a Muslim to say.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende

© 2014

Islamic theologian and political activist Farid Esack became known around the world for his work against apartheid in South Africa. He worked as gender equality commissioner for the government of Nelson Mandela for several years. His works include "The Qur'an: A Short Introduction!" (1997) und "The Qur'an: A User's Guide" (2005).

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